My relationship with Quentin Tarantino is a complicated one. As I first ventured into his body of work over the last year or so, I found myself impressed by the obvious talent that saturates his films but overall underwhelmed by how little they stuck with me. I saw (and still see, for the most part) Tarantino as a formally talented artist with not much of real consequence to say, which makes the experience his films provide exhilarating but ultimately vapid (The Hateful Eight is a positive anomaly for me, where his exuberant style is imbued with something really substantial that lingers past the credits).
This was more or less my position going into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood last week, and two viewings later, it’s firmly solidified as my second favorite Tarantino (and the only one besides Hateful that I truly love). The week between my two watches was largely spent mulling over Hollywood in my mind, wondering why it was so good compared to its cinematic siblings. Obviously it’s somewhat of a stylistic departure — the narrative is character-driven and lacks an exact plot, the violence is all but nonexistent for much of the runtime, and the characters are genuinely lovable (a trait that can’t be taken for granted in a Tarantino flick). But is there a more satisfying solution to the puzzle of Quentin Tarantino? What makes his two recent films tick so well for me compared to his past history? As I’ve thought these last few days about Tarantino’s cinematic style and progression as a filmmaker, I’ve come to a realization that his body of work falls rather neatly into three successive groups, or “eras,” which, compiled together, form a fascinating trajectory of consistent evolution. Considered as a whole, I feel that this trajectory provides some insight into the gradual progression and maturity of Tarantino as a filmmaker.
“For those regarded as warriors, when engaged in combat the vanquishing of thine enemy can be the warrior’s only concern. Suppress all human emotion and compassion. Kill whoever stands in thy way, even if that be Lord God, or Buddha himself. This truth lies at the heart of the art of combat.”
– Hattori Hanzō, Kill Bill: Volume I
The first of these “eras” is the Genre Era. The characteristics of the films found here are fairly self-explanatory: they are Tarantino’s take on a certain genre and conform to many of the properties found within; they are exercises in craft and narrative, and are largely unconcerned with anything such as “human emotion [or] compassion.” (They are also, interestingly enough, all set in the present day. This distinction will become more apparent as his filmography progresses.) This era begins, as it should, with Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs (1992), which is also his most straightforward and least remarkable. A gangster movie whose shoddy pacing and rather dismal camerawork are compensated by its exciting dialogue and engaging characters, Dogs establishes nearly all the quirks and idiosyncrasies soon to be synonymous with Tarantino’s work: 1) the aforementioned sizzling, snappy dialogue that doesn’t steal time from the action so much as it becomes the action; 2) larger than life characters who are equal parts morally reprehensible and dramatically riveting; 3) writing and visual styling that constantly references various cinematic influences and conforms to specific genre archetypes; 4) an episodic, non-linear structure driven by tension that mounts and mounts until 5) this tension is relieved in an explosion of guts and gore until few are left standing. I mean, the guy’s practically a modern Shakespeare.
The Genre Era continues with Pulp Fiction (1994), remaining in the general neo-noir crime lane established by Reservoir Dogs but also veering into the more specific gangster/hitman subgenre. All five elements listed above return with even more vigor than before, and the end result is a sophomore effort that far exceeds the debut in terms of formal quality (there is some possible subtext to be mined from Pulp Fiction about violence and reconciliation and redemption, but the real point is obviously the pizazz of the manipulated chronology and the explosive nature of the guns and dialogue). Skipping over Jackie Brown, which I haven’t seen and thus can’t judge within my hypothesis, we arrive at Kill Bill: Volume I and II (2003 and 2004). This dynamic duo (or single unit, for the purists) concludes the first act of Tarantino’s career with his most genre-saturated outing yet, restating Quentin’s adherence to the dialogue that preceded this segment by creating love letters to this “art of combat.” There isn’t much to these films that transcends pure craft, but for Tarantino, it seems to be enough. The guy’s having an absolute blast which you can feel pulsing through the screen, but there’s not a huge lasting impression beyond a general admiration for the utter coolness of it all.
This is easily the most straightforward group of Tarantino’s like-minded films. However, since his later work would both retain the seductive style found here and inject far more in terms of substance, it’s also his least intellectually and emotionally provocative. There are some good times to be had here, maybe, but there are better things to come.
“We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won’t not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they’re tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with. Sound good?”
– Lt. Aldo Raine, Inglourious Basterds
“I like the way you die, boy.”
– Django, Django Unchained
It’s following Kill Bill: Volume II* that Tarantino’s approach conspicuously evolves and we enter the second grouping (one Tarantino himself will retrospectively address later on, explicitly in The Hateful Eight and more implicitly in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood): the Frontier Justice era. The two films contained here — Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) — are still undeniably Quentin-esque and retain nearly all the stylistic qualities listed above, but with one noticeable variation: instead of present-day genre pieces, Tarantino’s Frontier Justice films exist to retrospectively justify historical atrocities through the violently satisfying catharsis of revisionist history. Basterds takes the Holocaust (and World War II as a whole) and respins the history books with a purgative vengeance, showing an alternative timeline that culminates in Adolf Hitler’s agonizingly painful assassination and a Nazi officer paying tortuous penance at the hands of a Jewish-American commander. Django goes after a similar effect, but through the lens of nineteenth century slavery and racism. Like Basterds, however, it also relishes all the brutal demises like they’re an exceptionally rare steak.
It’s the way this pair of films relishes the physical mutilation on display that makes me question their priorities. I suspect that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained are really rather unconcerned with the historical quandaries they claim to be about; in other words, I get the feeling that these films are informed first and foremost by Tarantino’s obsession with craft, and less by a real desire to consider the complexities of history. The point of Basterds and Django isn’t the periods during which they happen to take place, it’s exploiting these events to bring satisfaction to an audience as we witness Frontier Justice “atone” for past cruelties. Catharsis isn’t achieved in what the violence accomplishes (ridding the world of terrible people and thus preventing further atrocities), but in the physical act of the violence itself. Both films end in acts of victorious destruction, our protagonists full of glee over the devastation left in their wakes.
This begs the question: is this emphasis intentional on Tarantino’s part? Is he advocating for emotionally driven violence, not as a means to an end, but as the end itself? This is extreme and rather silly, and therefore I think the answer is no. The alternative is that he just doesn’t care about the greater implications of his films, only that they provide a kind of vicious and momentary satisfaction. Do Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, by virtue of the incredible skill with which they’re crafted, make great entertainment? From a pragmatic standpoint, absolutely. But do they make great cinema, thoughtful and multifaceted in its approach? In the wise words of Hans Landa: “Nein.”
“Now, you’re wanted for murder… And if you’re found guilty, the people of Red Rock will hang you in the town square, and as the hangman, l will perform the execution… That’s what civilized society calls Justice. However, if the relatives and loved ones of the person you murdered were outside that door right now, and after busting down that door, they drug you out in the snow, and hung you up by the neck… That would be Frontier Justice. Now, the good part of Frontier Justice is it’s very thirst quenching. The bad part is it’s apt to be wrong as right… [for] justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice.”
– Oswaldo Mobray, The Hateful Eight
“We’re gonna have a good thing / Such a good thing, baby / And when your world don’t seem just right / And life’s gettin’ you uptight / You can change that wrong to right / ‘Cause I was there myself last night!”
– Paul Revere & the Raiders, “Good Thing”
And at last, we arrive at the peak of Quentin Tarantino’s cinema: what I’ll call the Wrong to Right Era due to what seems to be a sudden perceptiveness in the moral compass of his films. The final stage of Tarantino’s evolution as a filmmaker contains what I consider his two best films by a substantial margin — The Hateful Eight (2015) and, of course, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) — and flows naturally out of the Frontier Justice sequence while improving on it in virtually every way. At first glance, Hateful and Hollywood seem to have very little in common, but in actuality, comparison between the two is quite illuminating. They function, it seems, not as identical twins but complementary ones, acting as opposite sides of the same coin.
The Hateful Eight shows its hand in the very title. The film simmers with barely contained passions for most of its runtime, tensions eventually rising to the boiling point at which guns and blood are finally drawn. This is standard fare for Tarantino. What’s less standard is his treatment of the violence at hand. As discussed above, Inglourious and Django exploit the violence as a kind of twisted catharsis for well-known and specific historical wrongdoings, but The Hateful Eight does something very unexpected: it makes the violence ugly. This is probably Tarantino’s most gory outing, and at first, some might find it as fun as it is elsewhere in his filmography. But soon, the brutality of what we’re witnessing and the moral deficiency of the characters dealing it all but robs us of our enjoyment. Tarantino, in a moment of self-awareness and critique rare up to this point, delivers this line through a supporting character – “The good part of Frontier Justice is it’s very thirst quenching. The bad part is it’s apt to be wrong as right” – and it’s not a stretch to imagine he’s directly addressing the nature of his former films. Here, however, death and depravity are no longer cool, but painful, functioning as a lament of our world that “don’t seem just right” and exposing a specific point in American history to reflect how little we’ve changed since. The first shot of The Hateful Eight is a low angle that gazes up at a large wooden crucifix: a symbol of the greatest injustice humanity has ever seen. The final shot is an intentional mirroring of that one — a character, dead and hanging in the left third of the screen — only now it gazes down in condescending dismay at the cruelty arrayed below. Like Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight ends soaked in wanton destruction, but unlike them, it doesn’t flood us with the kind of dopamine only the coolest of resolutions supplies.
If The Hateful Eight is a hard look into the ugliness of a humanity lacking any glimmer of hope, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers what can only be called a really lovely reprieve. Taken in context of Tarantino’s eight previous films, Hollywood seems almost a miracle: here is a film not tinged but smitten with nostalgia and yearning, where, for most of the runtime, the sole antagonist is either the progression of time itself or the damages it’s wrought throughout its course. Tarantino? Sentimental? It’s true, and it’s marvelous.
Perhaps the best thing about this utterly wonderful film (and probably what makes it so) are the characters. Never before has a Tarantino character been so immensely likable despite glaring flaws, and if you need any proof, just watch this three-hour film and note the number of times simply watching them hang out gets boring. Spoiler alert: it’s zero. This also means that during rare moments of suspense where the possibility of violence looms imminent, you actually, legitimately care whether or not these guys will make it out okay. (Take the go-to example of Tarantino suspense building, the bar scene from Inglourious Basterds. It’s immensely nail-biting because every line of dialogue drips with tension and unease, because you want the mission to succeed, because the ground is uncertain and you don’t know what the other side knows — but ultimately, it’s certainly not because you care anything for the characters. Contrast this example with a certain finale in Hollywood, and the disparity is obvious.)
I mentioned above that I consider Hollywood and The Hateful Eight to be opposite sides of the same coin, and I think this manifests itself most clearly in their respective approaches to violence. As discussed, the violence of Hateful is shown to be repulsive, agonizing, and ultimately empty of meaning or catharsis, and Hollywood expounds on this idea in its shockingly vicious third-act climax and the tranquil calm that follows.
The strange thing is that on paper, this penultimate scene is the least graphic of all Tarantino’s films: it’s darkly lit, blood is limited, and gunplay is nonexistent. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s the least fantastically extravagant — and therein lies the key. Here, the extreme violence is more hard-hitting because it’s so real. The falseness and excessiveness has been removed, and now it’s not fun; it’s very uncomfortable. Violence is no longer the end goal or objective, because now, real people that we care about are in real danger of pain and death.
So what is the end goal? Well, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, our cathartic relief as an audience comes not from the loss of life, but from the preservation of it, rendered all the more powerful by the comparative tragedy of the factual past. For the very first time in his career, Tarantino utilizes revisionist history not to redistribute the bloodletting to our collective satisfaction, but to save specific life — to “change that wrong to right.” This is the first Tarantino film of his second and third eras to not end in an act of violent destruction, but rather in a bond of fellowship and common decency, and after so many attempts at catharsis playing in the opposite field, it somehow means even more now that it’s finally gotten right. Evil intentions are unexpectedly thwarted, grace suddenly has room to grow, people draw closer together. And you know what? It’s a good thing, baby.
*I haven’t seen Death Proof (which Tarantino made between Vol. II and Inglorious Basterds), but from what I know of it, it seems to fit well as a bridge between the two periods it connects, as it’s his final genre-homage film (exploitation grindhouse cinema of the ’70s) and his first film to not be set in the present day.